Surprise! We don’t know if half our medical treatments work

January 24, 2013

Clinical Evidence, a project of the British Medical Journal, recently combed through the 3,000 medical treatments that have been studied in controlled, randomized studies. They found, for half of those, we have no idea how well they work (h/t Austin Frakt):

Keep in mind that the numbers above do not represent how often a given medical treatment is used. Instead, they represent the number of medical treatments in each category.

"We want to identify treatments that work and for which the benefits outweigh the harms, especially treatments that may be underused," the authors note. "We also wish to highlight treatments that do not work or for which harms outweigh benefits."

Those that fall into the "unknown effectiveness" category are medical treatments that "for which there are currently insufficient data or data of inadequate quality."

When health policy wonks talk about ending unnecessary care, they usually mean targeting these types of treatments -- the ones where we have no idea whether they're making us any healthier. but still increase spending.

There are specific bodies dedicated to figuring out whether these 1,500 treatments actually work. That includes the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, or PCORI, which was created by the health-care law to study comparative effectiveness research. They have been giving out grants to researchers to figure whether screening adolescent lipid levels will help control cholesterol and whether it's better to treat serious bacterial infections with oral or intravenous antibiotics.

This Clinical Evidence research suggests they'll have no shortage of medical treatments to study.

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Brad Plumer · January 24, 2013